Department Spotlight: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Festival brings thousands of film lovers to downtown Durham

Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, welcomes patrons to the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opening night screening, held at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.
Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, welcomes patrons to the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opening night screening, held at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. Photo courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.


Department: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Years in existence: 2013 is the 16th year for the documentary film festival in Durham.

Number of employees: Seven full-time employees; 35 to 50 seasonal employees; 350 to 500 volunteers.

Who they are: The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is a program of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. For four days each spring, the festival brings together filmmakers and film lovers from around the world for a morning to midnight smorgasbord of documentary films and discussions. Full Frame also offers year-round educational programming. These include School for Doc, a free summer educational program for underserved youth; a Teach the Teachers program for Durham high school teachers; and the Full Frame Fellows program for college students. Full Frame is supported by Duke, private foundations, grants and individual donors.

What they are known for: Producing a high quality, four-day non-fiction film festival. "The New York Times referred to us as `the premier documentary film festival in the U.S.,' " said Deirdre Haj, executive director. "Thanks to Sadie Tillery, the director of programming, we have stellar programming, but we also sweat over the details of making sure that the image and sound and theater ambience are top quality," Haj said. "We want people to see the films and think `Wow, that's the most beautiful image I've ever seen.' "

How they make a difference: The four-day festival brings people together for entertainment and discussion. In 2012, slightly more than 32,000 people visited downtown Durham during the festival to watch at least one documentary. "We expose people to new perspectives," Haj said. "Seeing films together is our communal campfire. It is where we gather to tell stories. And when the lights come up, we offer the opportunity to look at each other in the eye and talk about what we just saw."

Significant achievements: Being chosen in February as a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards. A documentary that receives the Jury Award for Best Short at this year's festival in Durham will qualify for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards. "When I got the email I originally thought someone was pulling a joke on me," Haj said. "But it is for real. This is a huge recognition of the strength of the festival and the quality of its programming.," The festival was also chosen in August 2012 as a qualifying festival for the Producers Guild of America awards.

Green Burials

A film about a Duke alumnus' search for a sustainable death will receive its world premiere at the Full Frame Film Festival.

"A Will for the Woods" documents psychiatrist's Clark Wang's interest in the green burial movement in the last days of his life as he battles cancer.  

Learn more here.

Big Goal: Haj hopes to expand year-round programming in new space at the American Tobacco Campus powerhouse. The space includes a theater and gallery for Center for Documentary Studies programs. "We've never had an event space of our own before," Haj said. "We've only been in this building since January and we're still brainstorming about how best to use such a wonderful space." 

Hidden department fact: Full Frame staff members love to visualize their work: one side of their new conference room has a 30-foot whiteboard. It's currently covered with red and blue layouts of rooms and flow charts mapping accommodations, attendance, catering and traffic flow for the awards ceremony and other receptions during the festival. "Planning the festival is kind of like putting on 100 weddings in four days with different guest lists for each event," said Ryan Helsel, director of marketing. "Lists, calendars and charts are how we view the world for a few months each year."

What they can do for you: Provide new perspectives on topics from taxidermy to Tajikistan. "Documentary filmmakers provide a very different view of the world than our mainstream media, which is owned by just a few companies," Haj said. "That is essential both to a democracy and to a local community."